Excerpt from Writing to Wake the Soul

by  Karen Hering

Every word is, in a sense, a metaphor, not only conveying its most obvious definitions but also other innuendos. If we think of words as the “fossil poems” Emerson dubbed them to be, we become more aware of the skeletons of old meanings pressed into them, whether visibly or invisibly. Even when we are unfamiliar with a word’s etymology and earlier usage, we can be influenced by the old associations it carries like a tincture vaguely coloring the word today. Especially when a word is in flux, in the process of being reappropriated by a new context or by a particular group, the hints of old meanings can hold invisible sway. Becoming more aware of these fossil inferences, then, gives us greater understanding of the words we use and how we use them.

Consider, for example, the word geek, a word undergoing transition as its common usage increases and as new generations claim it with zeal and pride. As recently as the early 1990s, the word was defined by the Oxford English Dictionary of the day as “a simpleton, a dupe; a person who is socially inept or boringly conventional or studious.” It was a derogatory label still stained by its earliest and much more gauche meaning as the name for a carnival performer who bit the heads off live chickens.

In usage, by the mid-nineties the word had already begun its new association with specialized computer skills and savvy. As technology soon proliferated in our daily lives and elevated many “computer geeks” in visibility and status, the perception of geekiness also gained stature, until the word eventually became a kind of badge of knowledge and devotion while still carrying a slight taint of social awkwardness. A 2011 dictionary entry defined geek as an unfashionable or socially inept person but added that when used with a modifier, as in “computer geek” or “movie geek” or “word geek,” it means “a knowledgeable and obsessive enthusiast.”

Clearly, the word has come a long way in a relatively short time, and if you’ve ever embraced your “inner geek” or announced you are going to “get your geek on,” you are part of a usage trend giving the word an increasingly positive spin. Even so, this might be as much about our growing willingness (and even desire) to embrace social awkwardness as it is a full rehabilitation of the word’s meaning. Both the dictionary and current usage suggest that even in its modified and more positive meaning, a tincture of social gawkiness remains, like the faint echo of a ghoulish freak show years ago. Knowing the word’s old story gives us a richer understanding of its innuendo when we use it.

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